Saturday, April 21, 2012

New on DVD: Accidental Robert Powell Retrospective: THE ASPHYX (1973) and THE SURVIVOR (1981)

Best known for the title role in the classic 1977 NBC miniseries JESUS OF NAZARETH, British actor Robert Powell seemed poised for the big time in the mid-to-late 1970s.  After paying his dues with small roles in major films like THE ITALIAN JOB (1969) and supporting turns in horror films like ASYLUM (1972), Powell had his breakout role in Ken Russell's MAHLER (1974), followed by a guest turn in Russell's TOMMY (1975) and after JESUS OF NAZARETH, he starred in the 1978 version of THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS.  In 1980, he turned in a brilliant performance as a phony Rasputin-like mystic manipulating a politician's family in the bizarre Australian thriller HARLEQUIN (released in the US as DARK FORCES), and then he more or less drifted from the limelight and by 1984, he was doing bad sci-fi/horror movies like WHAT WAITS BELOW.  He always stayed busy, usually in television (most recently spending seven years on the BBC medical drama HOLBY CITY) or in foreign-language films that didn't see much exposure outside of Europe.  In recent years, he's also found much work as a sought-after voice for audio books and TV documentaries.  Now 67, Powell remains busy but hasn't appeared in a film since the barely-released COLOR ME KUBRICK (2006) with John Malkovich.  But there was a time when Powell was almost a major star, and two cult films were coincidentally released on DVD by two different companies this week that serve as virtual bookends to Powell's big-screen heyday:  1973's THE ASPHYX, from Redemption/Kino Lorber (also available on Blu-ray), and 1981's THE SURVIVOR, from Scorpion Releasing.


THE ASPHYX has been on DVD before, but never looking quite as good as Redemption/Kino Lorber's HD remastering here.  The exquisite production design and striking colors are showcased in this beautiful transfer.  That the film looks as good as it does shouldn't be a surprise:  director Peter Newbrook (his only directing credit) and cinematographer Freddie Young both logged significant time under the tutelage of David Lean, with Newbrook as a camera operator and second unit photographer, and Young winning cinematography Oscars for LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, and RYAN'S DAUGHTER.  THE ASPHYX, long revered as one of the most imaginative of 1970s British horror films, can now be appreciated as one of the most visually stunning as well.  I've always found this film a little too slowly-paced, but seen the way it's meant to be seen, in glorious 2.35:1 widescreen instead of a crummy budget-label DVD or a hideously cropped, unwatchable VHS tape makes it a much better experience.  Seeing it on this Blu-ray really is like seeing it again for the first time.

In 1875 London, widower Sir Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens) is experimenting with photographic techniques and, through the deaths of his young fiancee and his son and a series of contrivances and hokey deduction that require you to just roll with it, concludes that smudges found on photographs of people near the moment of death is a manifestation of the Asphyx, the ancient Greek "spirit of death" coming to claim a soul as it departs the body. Working with his adopted son Giles (Powell), Sir Hugo develops a technique of capturing a person's Asphyx using light projection and crystals (just roll with it), thereby enabling a person to achieve immortality.  Of course, various tragedies befall Sir Hugo, as they would to anyone exhibiting the hubris to try to play God.

US poster art
There's no denying that a lot of this is rather silly, but a pro like Stephens (THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES) can sell a line like "We must capture my Asphyx!"  Powell, who would go on to MAHLER right after this, provides solid support as the initially skeptical Giles.  If you can get by the occasional silliness, THE ASPHYX is one of the more ambitious British horror films of its time, marred mainly by an intrusively inappropriate score by Bill McGuffie that seems like it belongs in a lush romantic drama.  Redemption/Kino Lorber provides two versions of THE ASPHYX in this package:  the original 86-minute British cut, and the extended 99-minute American cut (an 83-minute version also exists, but there was no need to include that).  The American cut fleshes out some character bits and at least a couple of important details and is probably the way to go.  However, the additional 13 minutes of footage throughout are culled from a clearly inferior source and there's a glaring dip in image quality during these bits, which is very likely why it's presented as an extra rather than as the primary presentation.  The shorter cut was the official UK release and that version maintains the consistently exemplary image and sound quality.  (Unrated, 86/99 mins)


The second of two back-to-back films Powell starred in for Australian producer Antony I. Ginnane, THE SURVIVOR is a supernatural thriller directed by Powell's HARLEQUIN co-star David Hemmings (BLOW-UP, DEEP RED).  Powell stars as David Keller, an airline pilot whose 747 crashes and explodes just after takeoff.  300 people oboard--all passengers and crew--are killed, except for Keller, who manages to walk away unscathed.  Keller has no recollection of what happened, is told by investigators that there's no possible way he could've escaped from the wreckage and they even begin to doubt he was ever on the plane at all.  We know he was, and he starts being stalked by a mystery woman (Jenny Agutter) who talks of life after death and how "they're" using her to get to him.  Meanwhile, young children around town are killing off adults--who may or may not have some connection to the crash--in assorted grisly ways.  THE SURVIVOR never got a US theatrical release and wasn't seen in America until it aired on CBS in 1988.  It's been on a couple of public domain DVD labels in its truncated form, probably using the TV version running anywhere from 82 minutes to 87 minutes, but this Scorpion release marks the first official release of the uncut 98-minute version in the US.

Based on a novel by James Herbert and scripted by David Ambrose (one of the writers of 1980's THE FINAL COUNTDOWN), THE SURVIVOR is a rather low-key, slowly-paced thriller, ambitious but rarely exciting, with more ideas than it knows how to handle, and it feels very much like an extended episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE that could've probably used one more polish.  In the first 45 or so minutes, Hemmings spends too much time with minor supporting characters and keeps Powell offscreen for far too long, but he does an impressive job with the terrifying plane crash, there's a couple of nicely creepy sequences and the scenes with Powell and Agutter haunted by the wailing cries of the spirits of the dead are quite unnerving. There's one or two moderately gory deaths and some typically dangerous Ozsploitation stuntwork early on, but I can see why no US distributors showed much interest in it, especially in the slasher-crazy days of 1981.  Powell and Agutter are fine and there's some nice cinematography by John Seale, who would soon go to Hollywood and earn several Oscar nominations and winning one for his work photographing THE ENGLISH PATIENT.  THE SURVIVOR is a decent, restrained little horror film, but largely an insignificant one except for it being the final screen appearance of Hollywood legend Joseph Cotten, seen here in a small role as a priest.  Cotten, then 76 and looking frail, suffered a debilitating stroke shortly after finishing his work on THE SURVIVOR, prompting his retirement from acting.  He died in 1994 at the age of 88. 

Scorpion's remastered, 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer looks fantastic.  Extras include a commentary with Ginnane and Scorpion horror hostess Katarina, plus a trailer. (Unrated, 98 mins)

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